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Aleut Internment During World War II

"We have as many as ten and thirteen people, large and small, sleeping, or trying to sleep, in one room.  The novelty has worn off long ago and now the real growling is commencing in earnest.  Most of them have all the reason in the world to complain.  No brooms, soap, mops or brushes to keep the place suitable for poigs to sleep in.  It seems funny that our government can drop so many people in a place like this an then forget about them altogether."

L. C. McMillin, agent of the Probilof evacuation camp at Funter Bay
11 July 1942

 

Few Americans have heard of the "Aleutian campaign" or that Native islanders, the Aleut, were removed from their villages and left to languish in squalid relocation camps, bereft of adequate nutrition, medical attention, heat, running water, and toilet facilities.  Historians have often referred to the Aleutian campaign as the "Forgotten War."  It was fought on American soil, and American forces incurred heavy losses along the 1500-mile front.  The campaign also exacted a heavy toll upon the Aleut.

Among the many tragedies and conflicts of World War II, the story of the Alaskan Aleuts' evacuation is usually overlooked or forgotten.  Alaska's Aleutian Islands are a string of more than 200 islands that arc like a thousand-mile strand of pearls between the Bering Sea and the North Pacific Ocean.  The Aleutian archipelago endured many changes but one of the most dramatic was the departure of the native Aleuts from their homeland.  The Aleuts faced many conflicts throughout their evacuation: the clash of cultures, the struggle to manage in a foreign, inadequate and often hostile environment, and the battle over their rights as citizens.

On 28 November 1941, the War Department was warned by Army Intelligence that a Japanese attack on Alaska was eminent.  In response nearly 41,000 troops were stationed in Alaska by April, 1942.  On 3 June 1942, the Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor, and soldiers on Kiska and Attu.  Dutch harbor was the principal U.S. military outpost in the Aleutian chain.  Its depth accommodated large ships, and its location, between the Bering Sea and the Pacific Ocean, was thought strategic in any military conflict involving the U. S. and Japan.

The year of 1941 had been a decisive one for the Pacific theater of World War II.  Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union threatened to divert Russian attention from its Siberian coast, adjacent to Japan.  The U.S. had committed itself to the lend-lease program, of which the Soviets as well as England were beneficiaries.  Well before Pearl Harbor, U. S. military intelligence anticipated that Japan, concerned about U. S. ships using Pacific routes to supply the Russians, would make aggressive naval and air moves in the Pacific, and, if established on Pacific islands, would use them as bases to attack Alaska and the U. S. west coast.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in December 1941 confirmed those fears and escalated the stakes in the Aleutian chain.  The U. S. had begun a frantic build-up of the Dutch Harbor area in 1941, constructing air and naval bases where large numbers of troops could be stationed.  After Pearl Harbor, Japan's goals in the Pacific theater were to neutralize the growing U. S. presence in the Aleutians while establishing naval supremacy by securing Midway Island, an ideal location for naval aircraft carriers.  Japanese commanders resolved to launch an offensive on the Aleutians, which they hoped might deceive the U. S. about a simultaneous "sneak" attack on Midway.  Their ultimate goal was not to use the Aleutians as a launching post for attacks on the U. S. mainland, but simply to prevent the U. S. from using them to invade Japan.  Despite having cracked the Japanese war codes by the spring of 1942, the U. S. was unaware of the Japanese goals and in any event did not want any Japanese presence in the Aleutian chain.

Beginning in March of 1942, American military intelligence had warned Alaskan defense officials that a Japanese attack was likely along the 900 mile island chain.  On June 3, Japanese planes bombed American facilities at Dutch Harbor and then several days later, Attu and Kiska islands were invaded.

Dutch Harbor was bombed by Japanese forces on June 3rd and 4th, 1942.  Forty-two Americans were killed, 64 were injured, and ten U. S. aircraft were lost.  The result was that when, on June 7th, Japanese forces invaded the islands of Kiska (largely uninhabited) and Attu, Atka - an island 600 miles west of Attu with a sheltered harbor - seemed next in line, with Unalaska to follow.

More than 40 villagers were captured on Attu and spent the rest of the war in prison camps in Hokkaido, Japan.  Barely 20 would survive the ordeal and return to Alaska.  After the invasion, American officials ordered the rest of the small villages in the chain to be evacuated.

American authorities made one of the most controversial decisions of World War II - to relocate the residents of the Aleutians to Southeast Alaska. 

Various representatives of U. S. agencies, including the Department of the Interior, the Alaska Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Alaskan Office of Indian Affairs, as well as Governor Gruening weighed in on the discussion of whether to evacuate Aleuts and where they should go.  That discussion was still ongoing in July 1942, even though Navy transports had begun the evacuation a month earlier and even though no concrete plans had been made for exactly where the evacuated Aleuts would be housed.  All the discussants anticipated that it would be somewhere in Southeast Alaska because of its relative accessibility to the Aleutians and somewhat moderate climate, but no facilities for house the Aleuts had been prepared.

At that point, a search began for abandoned canneries or warehouses to house the Aleuts.  Eventually five "campsite" locations were identified: Funter Bay and Killisnoo, west of Admiralty Island; Wrangell Institute, a stopover site on Wrangell Island, southeast of Admiralty Island; Burnett Inlet, a permanent campsite on Wrangell Island; and Ward Cove on Revillagigedo Island, where the town of Ketchikan was located.  Decisions to locate particular groups of Aleuts at particular campsites were made while the private and Navy transport ships carrying the groups were wending their way northeast from the Aleutian chain.  As a result, the ships stopped in various places as their itinerary was being figured out.  Conditions on the ships wee crowded; food was scanty; the weather, even in June and July, was sometimes inclement, the threat of war hovered over the ships; passages, and the Aleut passeng3ers were not allowed to take many of their belongings.

Flore Lakanof was a teenager in June 1942 when the Japanese attacked Dutch Harbor to try to divert American forces from the naval battle at Midway.  He'd just come from church when the news started to spread throughout his village of St. George.  Then came chaos and confusion.

He and other Aleuts in the Pribilof and Aleutian islands had little time to prepare for evacuation, to assemble one bag apiece before boarding a troop ship and sailing away from the only life they'd ever known.  He didn't know how long they'd be gone or even where they were going.  He certainly didn't know his sister and grandmother would die there.

"We were only given a few hours to pack and we were allowed to bring one suit case each," said Faye (McGlashan) Schlais.

885 Aleuts were sent by the federal government to internment camps:

82 from Atka to Killisnoo
290 from St. Paul to Funter Bay cannery site
190 from St. George to Funter Bay gold mine site
72 from Nikolski to Ward Cove
41 from Akutan to Ward Cove
50 from Unalaska to Seattle
130 from Kashega, Biorka, Makushkin and Unalaska to Burnett Inlet

With their homes suddenly in a war zone, the evacuation was meant to get them out of harm's way.  But that's not how this rescue mission unfolded.  Spread out among five isolated camps, 1,500 miles from home, in strange rain-forest land that felt suffocating to those accustomed to treeless, windswept tundra, the Aleuts were left to languish from neglect, malnutrition and disease.

Dora Dushkin was six when she, with the rest of her family, boarded a ship for Funter Bay.  On board, Dora gained a baby sister, who died shortly after her birth of pneumonia.  Susan Della Kochutin was laid to rest in the Gulf of Alaska near Kodiak and was sadly the first casualty of the evacuation.

Initially, U. S. authorities thought that the Ward Cove evacuees would be better off than other groups because they were the only group that would be connected, by an eight mile road, to a population center and they would also be taking over a camp that had been on constant use and not abandoned for some time like the canneries.   And since it was clear that the camp had been designed to house a group half the size of the Aleut evacuees, building supplies would also be provided to expand the accommodations.  The Aleuts were accompanied by Barbara and Samuel Whitfield, the Office of Indian Affairs teacher from Nikolski and her husband who would later leave to join the Coast Guard.  Shortly after, Fred Geeslin, an Office of Indian Affairs resettlement officer was also posted to the camp.

Ward Cove was a 1930s Civilian Conservation Camp (CCC) comprised of nine small cabins and four communal buildings.  Each cabin had a small kitchen and a bedroom with two bunk beds.  Lumber brought from Wrangell was used to build additional cabins and some furniture, scrap lumber was used for insulation although most of the buildings were far from airtight.

In all camps it was up to the Aleuts themselves to make things better.  The government lumber was all they had been given in additional to small amount of food.  Government officials expected them to be able to "live off the land" yet the Aleuts were without hunting or fishing gear and could not continue their subsistence lifestyle, according to Alice Petrivelli, who was interned as a 12-year-old child.  It was also expected that the Aleuts would find work in the Ketchikan area to support the camp.

Funter Bay was located in a forest and many of the Aleuts had never before seen trees.  Familiar medicinal plants were unavailable in this new environment.  The Tlingit Indians native to that area taught the Aleuts survival skills as well as offering their friendship.

Federal fish and wildlife agents were in charge of the Funter Bay camp where Kekanof and other from the Pribilofs ended up and many died.  Among the most deplorable conditions were at Funter Bay on Admiralty Island.  Dora Dushkin's first memory of Funter Bay was of her family of twelve living in a poorly insulated space that was ten feet by ten feet, partitioned by blankets.  Mice and rats scurried across the floor.  A toilet over the beach just about the low tide mark served 200 people.  All the human waste was washed directly into the Bay.  The water was contaminated and the facilities for boiling water were hard to come by.  Food was scarce and Dora and her sisters began chewing on their thumbs to ward off hunger pangs.

Those from St. George moved into a decrepit old gold mine and those from St. Paul to an equally dilapidated, abandoned cannery.  With light pouring in between cracks and people falling through dry rotted floors, these places were vermin-ridden and incapable of being heated.  Sanitation and pipesystems were never installed.  Residents drank water tainted with sewage and - at one camp - runoff from the expanding cemetery.  Survivors spoke of constantly being cold and hungry and sick.

An estimated one in ten died in the camps.

Despite the horrors of the internment, the Aleuts refused to succumb to despair.  The villagers of Unalaska erected a makeshift church and named it after their beloved Church of the Holy Ascension of Christ.  The religious articles and holy cards brought from the villages took on immense importance, the Aleuts turning to their faith for strength.

While religion was primary, self-sufficiency and cooperation also helped the Aleuts in the camps.  While religion was primary, self-sufficiency and cooperation also helped Aleuts in the camps.  These were old practical values in the Aleut village tradition.  They were put to good use because all Southeast camps needed major repairs or additional housing.  Aleuts pitched in with considerable carpentry, mechanical and electrician skills to refurbish and expand these "duration villages," as government officials called them.  Aleuts who could find jobs also worked for wages outside the camps.  Had there been more jobs, the Alaska Indian Service and U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service goals of total self-support for evacuation camps would have been met.  As it was, some Funter Bay evacuees worked in a defense project at Excursion Inlet; both men and women found jobs in Juneau; Atkan men and women worked in nearby canneries; and Burnett Inlet and Ward Cove evacuees were employed in cannery and construction labor in Ketchikan.  Like Sophie Pletnikoff, Aleuts who rented apartments and worked in Ketchikan helped relieve the Ward Cove camp's overcrowding.

Within the camps, the cooperative principal at work was succinctly stated by John Nevzaroff of Atka: "We all work together."  They used funds from their pre-evacuation store to support a widow with six children in camp and established a successful cooperative store at Killisnoo.  When their leader was drowned in an accident, they elected William Dirks to take his place, perpetuating a practice of self-governance.  The five Aleut groups at Ward Cove did the same by electing as spokesman Mark Pettikoff of Akutan in a show of cooperation.

Despite their poor treatment at the hands of the U. S. government, the Aleut remained a fiercely patriotic people.  Twenty-five Aleut men joined the armed forces.  Three took part in the U. S. invation of Attu Island, and all were awarded the Bronze Star.  At their camps, the Aleut surreptitiously voted in Territorial elections.  Through exposure to the outside world, they had come to understand the importance of their participation in the democracy by which they were governed, and they desired participation with the full rights of citizens.  The next generation of Aleut leaders spent their formative childhood years in these camps.

Although the war in Alaska essentially had ended by late summer of 1943, the Aleuts wept in camps as late as 1945.

The Aleuts returned to their communities nearly two years after the war ended and a year after relocation was approved, as strangers in their own homeland.

The Aleutian islands remained a theater of war, and the U. S. Navy and Army had moved into the islands in earnest.  The Army initially developed a "scorched earth" policy on such islands as Atka, to keep potential Japanese invaders from gaining access to anything useful.  Attu had been ravaged in the May 1943 battles.  Unalaska and the Pribilofs, along with Atka, thronged with soldiers who were housed in rapidly constructed barracks that replaced the Aleut dwellings.  The quality of their soil and drinking water had been permanently compromised by military contamination.  When some of those soldiers found possessions the departing Aleuts had been forced to leave behind, they looted them.  Even some churches were vandalized or destroyed.  The residents of Nikolski found the distinctive cupola, located atop the church, had bee used for target practice, letting water into the ceiling and walls.  Looting and vandalism by the American troops was so extensive in the two villages that inquiries were conducted and extensive repairs were attempted by the military after the war.  The federal government replaced some of the lost furnishing and appliances; the Navy repaired broken windows and doors.

The Attu Aleuts taken by the Japanese in September, 1942, were treated as prisoners of war throughout the war.  Of the 40 Attu evacuees, 16 died in their first prison facility, in the city of Otaru on the west coast of Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan's four major islands.  In the fall of 1945, after Japan's surrender, they were transferred by U. S. authorities to Okinawa.  After a long journey from Okinawa to Manila to San Francisco to Seattle, 24 survivors returned to the U. S. in November.  Nine more of the evacuees died before the Attuans were resettled in the Aleutian chain in December, but not on Attu.  The federal government did not want to spend the money to rebuild Attu, instead building homes for the Attuans on Atka.  Traditionally the Atkan and Attuan peoples had been rivals. 

Thus, although those inhabitants of the Aleutian and Pribilof islands who were evacuated to the U. S. fared, on the whole, poorly, those taken to Japan fared far worse.  Further, the attitudes of the evacuating governments differed.  The Japanese treated the Attuans as prisoners of war.  American authorities evacuated and interned Aleuts in part for their protection.  The U. S. government also paid for their food and lodging, made some effort to find them jobs, and after a timer, did not drastically restrict their ability to leave the camps.  It also paid for the Aleuts' resettlement, and filed claims on behalf of the Attuans with a War Claims Commission, established by Congress in 1948.  Twenty-three surviving Attuans or their descendants received payments under those claims in 1951, the largest amounting to $2,358.  The funds came from the sales of confiscated enemy property.

On 10 August 1988, public law 100-383 made restitution to the Aleuts for their years of personal loss by paying the 450 individual survivors $12,000 each and creating a trust fund for communities and churches.  The sum of $6.4 million was appropriated for community use; $5 million was for the six communities to use on projects designed particularly to benefit the elderly, students, and cultural preservation and $1.4 million was to compensate for church property lost, damaged or destroyed.

After years of debate on the Senate floor S1009, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, was passed.  The government gave monetary reparations and a formal apology for their actions during the World War II Aleut evacuation.

Aleut Corporation was given $15 million as compensation for Attu Island, which was occupied by the military after the war and remains closed to its former inhabitants.  Attuans, seized by Japanese troops in June, 1942, and take to POW camps in Japan, were resettled after the war at Atka, more than 500 miles from their home island.

 

 



 


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